Argument

Free Jason, Free Iran

My friend, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, spent his career trying to overcome the mutual distrust between the United States and Iran. It’s time for Tehran to free him from his jail cell in Evin Prison, and begin the hard work of engaging with the West.

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Jason would hate this.

He would hate being the focus of the story. He would hate seeing yet another rift between the United States and Iran, much less one with him at the center.

On July 22, 2014, Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh were arrested by Iranian security forces at their home in Tehran. They were the latest in a string of journalists arrested in Iran; Jason, an Iranian-American who grew up in the San Francisco area, is a correspondent for the Washington Post. After almost a year in Evin Prison, most of it without charge or access to legal counsel, he went on trial this week on accusations of espionage. The proceedings were closed to the public; his mother and his newspaper were denied access to the court.

For those of us who cover the Middle East, the case was a shock from the start. Jason has always been the one urging reporters to come to Iran, to see the country for ourselves. He lifted the dominant stereotype of Iran as a dark and downcast country. He introduced us to everyday Iranian people, to their humanity and hospitality. He taught us to see the Iran of Isfahan, the glittering city; of Hafiz, the Sufi poet; of Qom, the seat of religious philosophy.

Jason’s kindness and generosity made us fast friends in the Middle East press pool. We would talk about the things that kept the United States and Iran apart — how Iran felt scarred by the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, then pained by the memory of the Iran-Iraq War, and later wounded by the forgotten tragedy of Iran Air Flight 655, shot down by the USS Vincennes. For all those events, Iran placed the blame squarely on Washington. Americans, on their side, still live in the trauma of the 1979 hostage crisis, ever suspicious and stuck in frozen incomprehension of modern Iran.

Jason and I wondered how long it would take before the each country could finally and fundamentally understand the other. To both of us, journalism was a way to advance understanding and a sense of shared humanity. When I covered Iran’s first female taekwondo champion, heading to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jason helped me produce the story. His most recent article for the Washington Post was dear to his heart: Iran’s own baseball league, struggling to get traction in a country fixated on soccer. Politics were always a dimension of the Iran story, but much more interesting were the stories of daily life, of fascinating people and a fast-changing country.

In March 2013, I was part of a group of journalists invited to the White House for a roundtable discussion on the Middle East. President Barack Obama spent nearly an hour with us, discussing the state of the region. I spoke with Jason before that meeting, sharing as we often would our thoughts on politics, economics, and current events. We talked about Iran and how hard life was getting for people there; he had recently shared that eating chicken was becoming a luxury, as food prices spiked with tightening sanctions.

It was the same conversation any two reporters would have about the people and places they’re covering. It was no different from the observations Jason would make in his articles or during his routine radio and television interviews. But to Iran’s judiciary, it became evidence against him. According to the Iranian press, Jason’s conversations and emails with me were used as evidence that he was providing reports to the U.S. government. In a similar way, Jason’s meetings with overseas diplomats, a normal part of any reporter’s work on the job, became cause for suspicion. A U.S. visa application for his wife was also considered a key piece of evidence.

Of course, Jason’s detention comes in the context of greater events. The United States and Iran are in the final stages of negotiations over a nuclear deal that could unfreeze relations and re-establish normal diplomatic ties. It would fundamentally reorder power structures within Iran and across the Middle East.

Not everyone in Iran is eager to see that happen. There are deeply entrenched interests, both political and financial, that don’t want to see relations change. At the very least, a deal will accelerate trends that are transforming Iran from within. The nuclear deal holds the potential to fundamentally shift Iran’s domestic and international policy, empowering the reform-minded voices in its political spectrum. It would open the economy to global investors and break the taboo of U.S.-Iranian negotiation on issues throughout the Middle East.

Anxiety has been high, on both sides, around the potential transition. Unfortunately and unfairly, Jason has become a victim of that anxiety, a pawn in the geopolitical process. He is now part of the brinkmanship and horse-trading that happens in a complex negotiation. And those close to him have been swept up as collateral damage.

Islam, the foundation of Iran’s republic, teaches that “the most important thing is your intention” — ahm shi an-niyya, in the original Arabic. Jason’s intentions have always been good, and by now his captors have had more than enough time to see his true character. I hope they also see that the whole world — and most especially Iran — would be better off with him released.

Iran sees the United States, and the world, through the scar tissue of its past. This trial is happening precisely because fear and paranoia has reigned in Iran for so long. Now is the chance for Iran to step forward out of the past: In setting Jason free, Iran can also set itself free from so many decades of darkness.

Photo credit: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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